“The Amazing Race” meets Around the World in 80 Days as a woman desperate to save her family bookstore falls for her competition.
Born and raised in New York City, Ramona Keene dreams of attending photography school and traveling to Paris, but her reality never quite catches up with her imagination. Instead, she works at her uncles’ quaint bookstore, where the tea is plentiful and all the adventures are between the covers of secondhand books. But when the new landlord arrives with his Evil Nephew in tow, Romy’s quiet life comes crashing down. He plans to triple the rent, something her uncles can’t afford.
In order to earn the money to help save the bookstore, Romy applies for a job at ExLibris Expeditions, a company that re-creates literary journeys. Romy snags the oddest internship ever: retrace Phileas Fogg’s journey from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and plan a suitable, contemporary adventure for a client. The task is close to impossible; sticking to the original route means no commercial aircraft permitted, and she’s got a lot less than eighty days to work with. Shaking off her fear of leaving home, Romy takes on the challenge, only to discover she’s got competition. Worse, Dominic Madison turns out to be the – unfortunately hot – nephew of her family’s worst enemy.
Can Romy win the race and circle the globe in time to save the bookstore? And what happens when she starts to fall for the very person who may just be the death of her dreams?
Image: Bookshop Reflections
IG: Romy_K [NYC, March 14]
I type the last few letters of the caption, hit the upload button, and flick the app closed. Glancing at the time, I see I'm late, but only a little. Still, it's at least a week since I've uploaded anything to Instagram, so it had to be done.
It's been a long morning already. Up since before six, I've been toiling over the bookshop's social media accounts. Two Old Queens Books & Tea has been operating in this same unfashionable East Village location since long before I was born. Since before my uncles were born, in truth, though in those days the name over the door was different. Bagshaw's Books, maybe? I think there might be an old photo somewhere in Merv's back room. I should try and find it. Might be a nice visual counterpoint to the piece I added this morning. But not today. I'm late enough already.
Luckily, I don't have far to travel to work. My studio apartment is three flights of stairs above the shop. I've lived here almost two years, since the-literal-professional clown who used to rent the space disappeared overnight, leaving behind a disturbing number of popped balloons and sprays of confetti.
At least, I hope they were balloons. That's what I told myself as I cleaned them up off the floor, and out of the tiny closet. And from inside the shower drain.
Anyway, this morning I got caught up posting a few new acquisitions to the shop's #Bookstagram account, and lost track of the time. Generally, I agonize how to best present the latest book, shoot a few dozen possibilities, then narrow it down to my favorite. I post the shot first to Instagram, which auto-feeds it to Facebook, and then I post it separately to Twitter and Snapchat, so the full image appears, and not only a link. All of this takes time, but it drives more traffic to the bookshop's site, and ultimately to the bookstore. At least that's what I tell myself. And Merv.
Right about the time I graduated from college and started working full time at the bookshop, I promised my uncle that a few decent social media accounts would help us build our community. He grumbled that pictures in the ether didn't sell books on the ground, but I know it's made a difference.
But this morning? It's only made me late.
Trying to keep the sound of my heels to a minimum, I hurry down the back stairs. These lead to the lane behind the building, but also to the rear door of the shop, which is always kept locked. Going this way means I can't avoid the smell of the dumpster parked outside the back door, but it also means I might be able to sneak past the unblinking eye of Uncle Merv's partner Tommy, who is never averse to pointing out my shortcomings.
As I slip into the back room, the warm aroma from Tommy's old coffee urn supersedes the dumpster stench, and-bonus!-there's no one around. Immediately, I hurry over to finish a job from last night: sorting through a pile of books bequeathed to us by an old patron.
This happens a lot at the Two Old Queens-somebody dies, and their kids or grandchildren aren't readers, so they dump all the family books on our doorstep. Most of what comes our way in this fashion we can't really use. I mean, we already have a full shelf of Jacqueline Suzanne paperbacks with lurid seventies covers, right? So, as low girl on the employee totem pole, it falls to me to sort out the dregs, and then take any titles that appear even moderately appealing to my Uncle Merv for the final decision.
By the time I finish culling the pile, I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself. I've got social media locked in for the bookstore, finished my assigned task, and mapped out my plans for the week in my bullet journal, all without being called out by Tommy for showing up a little late. There's a long workday still ahead of me, it's true, but tonight I've got a plan for a night in. It involves a giant bowl of pho and a Black Panther DVD I found in our discard pile, loaded with outtakes of Killmonger with his shirt off.
Don't tell me I don't know how to live.
Flipping open my bullet journal again, I cross off all the tasks I've accomplished for the morning. Then, making a careful largest-to-smallest pile of books to take out front for my uncle, I ass-backed my way through the swinging door and onto the sales floor.
I need to pause here to give a sense of what it is to work in the Two Old Queens. I mean, if you peer in through the glass of the front window, I guess it looks normal enough. There's a lovely wooden sign depicting Queen Victoria gazing disapprovingly at Queen Elizabeth-who stares serenely back-in the transom above the door. The store's located on a corner within sight of Tompkins Square, which is pretty much the center of the East Village in New York City. This means we're far enough off the tourist trail to be generally pretty quiet, and not close enough to Soho or Greenwich Village to be hip. Our window display, courtesy of my uncle's partner Tommy, changes seasonally, and sometimes even monthly, when he's feeling creative. You might also spy the wee tea bar, tucked into one corner; leaf tea only, darling. And there's the standard cash desk, mostly filled by an old register with buttons so stiff it hurts my fingers to press them.
The register does, however, make a satisfying cha-ching when I complete a sale.
Supervision is provided by Tommy's cat, an elegant, aloof, green-eyed tabby called Rhianna. Literally all the boxes ticked for a self-respecting indie bookstore, right? But where Two Old Queens sets itself apart is in our merchandise. You know how in the library, they refer to the bookshelves as stacks? Hey, don't mind me, I'm only heading over to the stacks to look up a book on paleontology.
Well, when we talk about the stacks in our shop, it's literal.
Every surface is stacked high with teetering piles. Until they stop teetering, and tumble-usually Rhianna's doing. When this happens, everything comes to a halt, and all hands converge until a new pile appears once more. Faster when a customer is underneath, of course.
It's a chaos with which I've battled as long as I can remember. I have spent my time-So. Much. Time.-trying to organize Uncle Merv and his systems. Whenever a tiny bit of progress is made-I find a new computer program for arranging book intakes, or an inventory system relying on something more comprehensive than the alphabet-inevitably, the wheels fall off again.
The shop is always warm. Every reader is welcome. It smells of old books and sweet tea and the heady scent of ten thousand stories, trapped between the covers.
And a little bit of cat.
Currently, the front of the shop boasts a dozen 'book pillars'; floor-to-ceiling spirals of new acquisitions. I've been laboring over them for weeks, and have managed to work my magic and stack three of them from largest to smallest. Still, with having to sort Merv's most recent acquisitions, it's been slow going.
By the time I take a final pivot around the waist-high stack of family bibles-there's been a run on funerals in the neighborhood recently-I stop in surprise to find two men standing beside the cash register with my Uncle Merv.
As noted, our little shop is definitely off the beaten path. We have what I like to think is a pretty typical amount of foot traffic-mostly regulars, and once in a while the odd tourist gets lost and stumbles in. Business has been a bit brisker since the Starbucks down the street relocated elsewhere, but we're never remotely crowded. It's rare to have two customers in the shop at one time, unless it's Christmas or one of the local book-clubs decides to do a Jane Austen reread.
However, as I stagger up to the desk, the two-man element of this scenario is less surprising than the expression on Merv's face. Merv came of age as a gay man in 1970s New York. He's survived bashing, the AIDS crisis, and Tommy's histrionics when I set the table and forget to put the forks on the left. Merv's live-and-let-live ethos rules his life, and explains a lot about the condition of the bookshop. There's not much that can knock him off his stride.
So, when he looks worried-there's usually a good reason.
I pause, chin resting lightly on my stack of books, and take a closer look at the two men standing by the desk. The first is a short, overweight man with bleached hair and a spray tan. His camel overcoat is crumpled, and he's left a trail of dirty snow all the way from the front door. I can't help glancing around for Tommy, who will have an absolute bird when he sees this, but thankfully he's nowhere in sight. The orange man is clenching the soggy nub of a well-chewed, but blessedly unlit cigar between his thick lips.
Uncle Merv is at least a head taller than this guy, but as he catches my eye, his expression doesn't relax.
"Ramona," Merv says quietly, "this is Mr. Frank Venal. Apparently, he is the new owner of our building."
"Ya got that right," Frank Venal says, his New Jersey accent thick as buttah. "Won the whole buildin' last night on two pair and a cement poker face."
He squints in my direction, and with his thick tongue, moves the cigar to the corner of his mouth.
"Ramona?" he asks, glancing at one of the papers in his hand. "As in, Ramona Keene, suite 2B?"
I take advantage of his moment's distraction to slide my pile of books onto the sales desk. As I do, Venal's companion shuffles his feet uncomfortably. He's closer to my age, and taller; with tawny skin and wavy dark hair that just brushes his shoulders. I know instantly I've seen this guy somewhere before. He's attractive enough that under normal circumstances, I'd be wracking my brain to remember where.
But at the moment, the circumstances feel pretty far from normal.
All the same, I slide sideways a little to try to catch the young guy's eye. When I do finally manage it, he glances away, maintaining a carefully blank expression.
"That's right," I answer, at last. "I'm Romy Keene." I look past the younger man and exchange a worried glance with my uncle.
"Well, as of midnight last night, doll, this building is mine," Venal says smugly. "And seein' as nobody in their right mind reads books anymore, I'm guessin' this place don't pull its own weight. Consider this your official notice. You pay what I'm askin', or you got forty-five days before the wreckers come in."
He turns and bares his teeth at the younger man. "I'm thinkin' micro-condos, Dom. Them things are the way of the future."
He waves a piece of paper that reads 'Property Deed' in Merv's face.
Merv takes a step back, and Venal clutches the younger man by the arm.
"This is my-ah-nephew, Dominic," he says. "He'll be by to collect the rent every month."
"We always pay by direct deposit," Merv says, but Venal waves this away with a menacing chuckle.
He slaps a new lease agreement on the counter.
"I prefer the personal touch," he says. Except he pronounces it poisenal. Then he marches out the front door.
The taller man shoots a startled look at Venal's retreating back, pausing as the bell jingles on the front door. "He's not my uncle," he whispers, then hurries out onto the street.
Merv slumps on a stool behind the counter, looking stunned. This act in itself shows how upset he is, since he has always equated sitting behind the cash desk with the most contemptible laziness. At this moment, Tommy, swathed in several scarves and with a large Soviet-era fur hat on his bald head, comes bustling in the front door, laden with patisserie bags.
By the time he's got his coat off and the pastries under the glass display domes on the tea counter, Merv's told him the whole story. Tommy bursts into tears at the news.
This is no help at all.
In the end, I tuck Tommy into the comfy sofa in their tiny apartment behind the bookstore. I leave a cup of tea, a plate piled in chocolate Žclairs, and his favorite telenovela on to distract him. Hurrying back into the shop, I find Merv has summoned our neighbor, Mrs. Justice Rosa Ruiz, in the interim.
Mrs. Justice Rosa-seriously, that's what we call her-is eighty-six, and a retired circuit court judge. She's among our regulars, stopping by weekly to pick up her copies of the Times and Hola Latinos, a cup of tea, and whatever sweet treat Tommy can entice her into. Today, she's wearing a tracksuit in vivid magenta and a pair of Birkenstocks that show off her turquoise pedicure.
It's hard to decipher some of the document's legalese, but once I find her a magnifying glass, Mrs. Justice Rosa lends us her thoughts and we determine the extent of the bad news.
The new lease spells out that since Venal's acquisition has negated historic rent controls, he will now be charging triple the rent, something the bookshop can never sustain. Two Old Queens needs to pay up by May 1st-less than seven weeks away-or face eviction.
I spend the rest of the very long day running back and forth between the cash desk and the little apartment behind the shop, bearing fresh cups of tea. Mostly this is in aid of keeping Tommy calm, as his inclination to burst into tears is upsetting to Merv.
Tommy and Merv have run this Lower Manhattan bookstore together for more than thirty years, and the thought of losing it is horrifying to all of us. After Mrs. Justice Rosa leaves for her daily nap, the two of them huddle in the back, knees together on one of the overstuffed sofas, reading and rereading the new lease document in hopes of finding something the old lady judge has missed.
When the midafternoon lull hits, I tiptoe into the back to see if the uncles have made any progress. I peek around the corner to see Tommy has fallen asleep, head tilted against the back of the couch, mouth open. Rhianna is curled on his lap. Merv is still holding the document, but he's not looking at it. Just staring blankly into space
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